Ensuring Women Have Access to Proper Nutrition Grows Their Power

Image Source: Jonathan Torgovnik, Getty Images, Images of Empowerment

By: Megan Deitchler, Initiative Director, Intake; Sandy Remancus, Initiative Director, Alive & Thrive; Blythe Thomas, Initiative Director, 1,000 Days

Every person has the fundamental human right to access safe, affordable, and nutritious foods, but women and girls are twice as likely to suffer from malnutrition as men and boys due to a combination of biological, social, and cultural factors. We must do better to change this reality. Ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day, 1,000 Days and our sister Initiatives at FHI Solutions, Alive & Thrive and Intake, are calling for greater action to improve the nutrition of women and girls worldwide.

We know that well-nourished women and girls are healthier, more productive, and more likely to finish school. Malnutrition is a barrier that keeps women from accessing their full potential, which reinforces women’s oppression in all aspects of their lives. Good nutrition and women’s empowerment go hand in hand. A more intentional focus that targets improving women’s’ and girls’ nutrition is critical to making concrete, cost-effective, and sustainable improvements to the status of girls around the world. Simply put – ensuring women have access to proper nutrition can help them grow their power. Consequently, gender equality and increasing women’s decision-making powers are crucial to overcome nutritional vulnerabilities and break the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition.

Good nutrition is an essential building block in our fight for gender equality, but our approaches thus far have been siloed. Considering the interlinks between a woman’s health and her ability to claim her agency, actors and service providers across health, social protection, agriculture, and women’s empowerment sectors must prioritize optimal nutrition for women in their own right. Failure to harness a nuanced approach to these interlinked issues, from the community level to the global, will continue to leave women behind.

Over the next two years, FHI Solutions will work hand in hand with our diverse and multi-sectoral allies, ranging from community organizations to government leaders, to galvanize global- and country-level momentum for a compelling Women’s Nutrition Action Agenda. Through this Action Agenda, we aim to:

  1. Advance women’s nutrition as a global development priority of major donors and in target priority low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)
  2. Inform and inspire more and better use of new and existing financing for nutrition on priority World Health Assembly nutrition targets (anemia, low birthweight, and exclusive breastfeeding) from target LMICs and donors
  3. Influence delivery platform gatekeepers in health, including primary health care / Universal Health Coverage platforms, as well as other sectors to integrate preventive nutrition interventions in target LMICs
  4. Advocate for the use of reliable, validated metrics, such as the Global Diet Quality Score, to track progress in achieving healthy diets for all, especially women and girls

Nutrition programming is an underleveraged tool in the fight to advance girls’ rights and empowerment. By leveraging targeted nutrition interventions as a key part of gender equality programming, women’s empowerment actors can give a cost-effective boost to their investments and move the world back closer to reaching Sustainable Development Goal 5 – SDG 5. We are committed to working together with critical partners, both inside the global nutrition community and beyond, as we build a multi-sectoral policy, advocacy, and communications effort to inspire national and international commitment to, and scaled-up investment for, women’s nutrition. We must ensure the nutrition and health of girls and women to fully support their ability to build vibrant lives of their own making.

#BreakTheBias

8 is a powerful number. In many religions, the number 8 signals infinity. 8th March is an equally powerful day. Every year, International Women’s Day puts the spotlight on women’s social, political, and cultural achievements, reminding the world that women are in and of themselves worthy of celebration.

This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias. The campaign asks us all to:

Imagine a gender equal world.

A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.

A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

A world where difference is valued and celebrated.

Together we can forge women’s equality.

In 2022, we ask is this reality possible without good nutrition for women and girls? And which comes first?

Today, the biases a woman faces in her family, in her community, in work, and in society mean that her nutrition suffers most. Malnutrition is the single largest cause of death among women[1]. More than one billion women experience at least one form of malnutrition and women experience at least 60% of the world’s malnutrition[2].

450 million women and girls are stunted, or short for their age, which means that they have experienced chronic malnutrition. [3] Globally, anemia affects one in three women of reproductive age[4], causing fatigue, lower resistance to disease and increased maternal mortality.

Across the world, women eat last and least due to entrenched social norms. It is common practice for a woman to forgo meals to provide for her husband or children. In many cultures, this is an accepted norm, even when women are pregnant and have higher nutritional needs.

Gender inequity drives poor nutrition. At the same time, poor nutrition also significantly reduces women and girl’s resilience, health, and wellbeing, and can contribute to harmful social norms. Malnourished girls are more likely to drop out of school and go on to earn under their potential. Malnutrition is correlated with higher levels of domestic abuse, early child marriage, lower confidence, and lower earnings[5].

Malnutrition is also an intergenerational cycle – a low birth weight baby girl often becomes stunted in childhood, malnourished in adolescence and adulthood, and, more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby herself. Low birth weight is correlated with higher chances of disease and impaired cognition growth and development[6].

At FHI Solutions, we want to see women and girl’s access safe, affordable, and nutritious food to nourish herself and her dreams. One of our initiatives, Alive and Thrive (A&T), is working in 19 countries to positively change social behaviours and norms, improving maternal and infant and young child feeding practices.

By working with communities and health workers, A&T builds knowledge, skills, and behaviours. A woman’s confidence, ability to own her finances, and have control over her income stream is strongly correlated with positive nutrition outcomes for herself and for her children. Reaching community is vital, which is why we engage husbands and fathers. We cannot leave men out of the solution.

FHI Solutions incubates, tests, and scales solutions for nutrition in partnership with governments. National systems can be strengthened by improving the demand and supply of quality services. Today, with the unacceptable state of women’s and girl’s nutrition, food, health, social protection, and gender sectors all have an opportunity to share lessons and work together towards a common agenda.

To support national systems, we also need to break data biases. Diet quality  – the amount and type of nutritious foods that women and girls have access to and consume must be measured. Our initiative, Intake, is a Center for Dietary Assessment that increases the availability, quality, reliability, comparability, and use of dietary data and metrics.

Our 1,000 Days initiative advocates for increased nutrition investments in the United States and around the world. Together with global partners, 1,000 Days and FHI Solutions are advocating for increased financing for women’s nutrition with a focus on achieving World Health Assembly targets on anemia, breastfeeding, and low-birth weight.

This March 8th, we call for innovation and investment in policies, plans, solutions, and data for all women, everywhere. Multilaterals, donors, and country governments have an opportunity to invest in gender sensitive policies, articulated in costed nutrition plans. There are many proven ways to safe-guard women’s nutrition and doing so would generate significant social and economic returns.

Women are nurturing our families, fuelling our global food system, running our social enterprises, and excelling in business. Like the number 8, girls and women are born with infinite potential. It is unthinkable that millions are stopped from reaching it.

[1] GBD Diet Collaborators, Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 2019, The Lancet.

[2] Results UK; Malnutrition is Sexist: The determinants of nutrition for women and girls; 2021

[3] Global Nutrition Report 2021

[4] WHO, Fact Sheet, 2021

[5] Saaka, M; (2020); Women’s decision-making autonomy and its relationship with child feeding practices and post-natal growth; J of Nut SCI, 2020; 9: e38.

[6] Christian, P. et al (2013) Risk of childhood undernutrition related to small for gestational age ad pre-term birth in LMIC Int. J. Epidemiol, 2013, 42 (5), 1340-1355

Member Spotlight: FHI Solutions

By Nadra Franklin, Managing Director of FHI Solutions 

Today, a child dies of malnutrition every 11 seconds. Technology and solutions to end malnutrition exist, yet, unlike tech industries in Silicon Valley, we are not investing enough in accelerating solutions to one of the world’s most fundamental challenges.

FHI Solutions is a member of the FHI 360 family. Together, we strive for a world where everyone reaches their potential so that all people, communities, and societies thrive. For this to happen, everyone, everywhere must access healthy diets and essential nutrition and health services. Food, health, water and sanitation, education and social protection systems all play a role.

Malnutrition is the leading cause of under five deaths worldwide, accounting for 45% of all under five mortalities. Good nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life, from conception to age two, has been correlated with increases in IQ, educational attainment, and earning potential. As such, good nutrition undercuts the world’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Today, only 1% of development assistance goes to nutrition, while domestic investment is declining. Given the nutrition challenge and funding climate, our goal is two-fold. We want to find solutions for malnutrition and test them. And we want to scale these solutions by connecting domains and sectors that are not yet optimally working together. To advance our mission, FHI Solutions houses three initiatives, having implemented projects in thirty countries.

Through, Alive & Thrive (A&T), we are demonstrating that rapid improvements in infant, young child, maternal and adolescent nutrition are possible across diverse contexts. Today, A&T behaviour change programmes are being successfully adopted in eight countries and regional efforts are underway to replicate program and policy approaches in Southeast Asia and West Africa. In Bangladesh, in A&T intervention areas, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months increased from 49% to 86%, and in Vietnam, tripled.

Globally, dietary diversity is lacking, impeding the scale up of impactful programs and policies. Intake is a Center for Dietary Assessment, which increase the availability, quality, reliability, comparability and use of dietary data and metrics in eight countries. By working with national governments to build expertise and capacity, Intake is advancing evidence-based policies.

At 1,000 Days, advocacy and communications are driving nutrition investments in the United States and globally. Improving nutrition during the critical 1,000-day window between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday is one of the best investments in global development. Between 2009 and 2019, 1,000 Days supported the growth of U.S. Government funding for global malnutrition from $55 to $150 million and, in 2021, advocated to raise ambition at Tokyo’s Nutrition for Growth Summit.

Across this portfolio, we use data to learn what works, share knowledge, and adapt to new contexts. Our aim is to scale sustainable solutions across sectors, providing novel approaches for nutrition, health, food systems, climate, and other sectors. We work across systems for impact, while at the same time, our initiatives are designed to integrate with other sectors.

To learn more, please visit www.FHIsolutions.org.